Monday, September 28, 2020

One Old, One New: The Heather Smith Edition

One Old, One New features two books - one old, one new, which are connected in some way. Today, I am sharing two books by Heather Smith. These are set in different time periods, the 80s and 90s, but they are both beautifully explore themes of family, friendship, and belonging. 
Barry Squires, Full Tilt

Heather Smith
Age/Genre: Middle Grades/Young Adult, Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Barry Squires, Full Tilt takes readers on a romp through the streets of St. John's and into the Squires household, a place where tragedy strikes but love prevails. Derry Girls meets Billy Elliot with an East coast twist.

It's 1995. When the Full Tilt Dancers give an inspiring performance at the opening of the new bingo hall, twelve-year-old Finbar (Barry) Squires wants desperately to join the troupe. Led by Father O'Flaherty, the Full Tilt Irish Step Dancers are the most sought-after act in St. John's, Newfoundland (closely followed by popular bagpiper, Alfie Bragg and his Agony Bag). Having watched Riverdance twice, Barry figures he'll nail the audition. And good thing too -- it'd be nice to be known for something other than the port wine stain on his cheek. With questionable talent and an unpredictable temper, Barry's journey to stardom is jeopardized by his parents' refusal to take his dreams seriously. Thankfully, Barry has the support of a lively cast of characters: his ever-present grandmother, Nanny Squires; his adorable baby brother, Gord; an old British rocker named Uneven Steven; a group of geriatrics from the One Step Closer to God nursing home; and Saibal, a friend with whom Barry gets up to no good.

Told with humor and a healthy dose of irreverence, Barry Squires, Full Tilt takes readers on a rowdy romp through the streets of St. John's and into the Squires household, a place where tragedy strikes, but love prevails.
Relentlessly teased for his port-wine birthmark, Barry was looking for a different way to stand out. After seeing the Full Tilt dancers, he was determined to become part of their troupe. In his quest, he faced many obstacles, but discovered so much about himself along the way. 

This book was so funny and touching. This irascible young man stole my heart. I must admit, I wasn't sure about him at first. Yes, his temperament was less than desirable, but as I got to know more about him, those rough edges smoothed out a bit, and all I could see was his heart of gold. I could present a list of reasons why I adored Barry so much, but the standout reasons revolved around the special relationships he had. 

Watching him with his baby brother, Gord, melted my heart. In Gord's presence, this tender side of Barry emerged. It was also rather beautiful watching him bond with the nursing home residents and Uneven Steven, a local homeless man. Barry may have been gruff and short fused, but the boy had a very compassionate heart, and there are many times his goodness shined during this story. 

Family was another important part of this book. When I first met the family, Barry and his two older siblings were taking turns caring for the baby, because their mother was suffering from postpartum depression. This had quite an affect on the family, but they stood by each other. And when tragedy hit the family, they rallied once again. Though this was the most painful part of the book for me, I also found it the most beautiful. The exploration of the agony and loss was thoughtfully explored, and I couldn't even be mad, because it led to tremendous growth for Barry and his family. 

I have to warn you, the "tragedy" I mentioned is a death. It reduced me to a puddle, but I must admit, the cast of characters was so good, that losing any one of them would have hit me hard. Each and every one of the supporting characters was so well drawn, and I loved how they all made this story come to life. It was such a comfort to see all the support Barry found in them, and I was grateful they were part of this tale. 

Overall: It was such a pleasure getting to meet Barry. He made me laugh, and he made me cry, but he also filled me with hope, optimism, and happiness. 

**ARC received in exchange for an honest review.

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

Heather Smith
Age/Genre: Young Adult, Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Little Miss Sunshine meets Room in this quirky, heartwarming story of friendship, loyalty and discovery.

It's Newfoundland, 1986. Fourteen-year-old Bun O'Keefe has lived a solitary life in an unsafe, unsanitary house. Her mother is a compulsive hoarder, and Bun has had little contact with the outside world. What she's learned about life comes from the random books and old VHS tapes that she finds in the boxes and bags her mother brings home. Bun and her mother rarely talk, so when Bun's mother tells Bun to leave one day, she does. Hitchhiking out of town, Bun ends up on the streets of St. John's, Newfoundland. Fortunately, the first person she meets is Busker Boy, a street musician who senses her naivety and takes her in. Together they live in a house with an eclectic cast of characters: Chef, a hotel dishwasher with culinary dreams; Cher, a drag queen with a tragic past; Big Eyes, a Catholic school girl desperately trying to reinvent herself; and The Landlord, a man who Bun is told to avoid at all cost. Through her experiences with her new roommates, and their sometimes tragic revelations, Bun learns that the world extends beyond the walls of her mother's house and discovers the joy of being part of a new family -- a family of friends who care.
Her mother told her to leave, so she did. Luckily, Bun encountered the kind and generous Busker Boy, who took her under her wing and introduced her to a quirky bunch of people, who would become her family. 

Heather Smith seems to understand how to make me feel, because once again, she had me riding an emotional roller coaster. Don't get me wrong, I loved every second of it. There is something really special about the characters she creates, but also, the way she explores the connections between them. 

I was immediately taken by Bun. First, because she was intriguing, but later, because of who she was. She wasn't sent to school or formally educated in any way. However, she would find books, magazines, and video tapes among her mother's hoards and would devour all the information they held. She knew many facts, but her outlook and understanding of the world was rather stunted due to the lack of interaction with other people. She was quite naive, but so pure. I love the idea that someone, who lived in an abusive and neglectful home could still see so much beauty in the world and possess such a kind heart. 

These attributes of Bun's not only endeared her to me, but they also captured the hearts of Busker Boy and his roommates. Each of the house's inhabitants had their own issues, but it seemed, being around Bun helped some of them come to terms with a few. I felt like they all grew so much together, and there was just something really special about seeing some of their pain replaced by joy. 

It was the little things that really pulled me in. Busker Boy braiding Bun's hair, and Chef making her toutons. Chris taking her shopping, and Big Eyes making up her face. Each of these slightly damaged people opened their hearts to her. They gave her the love and nurturing that she didn't even realize she was starved for. They were patient and kind and loving, and it really tugged at my heartstrings. 

There were quite a few weighty topics incorporated into this story aside from the abuse and neglect, and though the others were not explored as throughly, I thought Smith did a good job working them in without weighing down the story. Yes, I cried happy and sad tears, but in the end, I was left hopeful and uplifted. 

Overall: It was a pleasure meeting Bun O'Keefe, and I was overjoyed to see her find a "home" with this motley crew of equally beautiful people. 

Have you ever been the Newfoundland?
Let us know in the comments!

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